Sunday, March 30, 2014

White Ibis, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and Virginia Beach

Finally made my first trip to Virginia Beach this past week. The weather was
mostly brutally windy and cold, but at least the rain held off until the last day. I was in town for a conference, so I had to fit in quick side trips for birding whenever I could. The sporadic searching certainly resulted in fewer discoveries, but I still managed to add 5 lifers to my list.

The first lifer was a Brown Pelican perched on a pole just outside of the tunnel between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. It was just the warm welcome I was hoping for! Little did I know, I was in for sightings of at least 100 more Brown Pelicans before my visit was over.

(But, really, nothing rivaled the sheer numbers and spectacle of the Northern Gannets. Every morning and evening, from my hotel room, I could sit and watch literally thousands of Gannets hunting for their meals over the ocean. I'd seen some Gannets before, no doubt, but I left Virginia Beach with a profound respect and awe of that stunning, powerful, ferocious, graceful bird.)

My next lifer was a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (why Cornell has this peculiar arrangement of hyphens and odd capitalization is anyone's guess). Considering how secretive and mostly-nocturnal this bird is, I definitely did not expect to add it to my list. I lucked out, though, when I arrived at Pleasure House Point and within 5 minutes bumped into a local birder, Rexanne Bruno. Rexanne and I exchanged pleasantries, and I somehow convinced her that I was harmless and clueless enough to let me tag along for the remainder of her walk. Rexanne has been birding that territory for 15 or so years, so she knew exactly where we might find a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Within minutes, we found two Black-crowned Night-Herons perched in the trees, and I was content enough with that discovery, but not 10 yards away on the opposite side of the path was a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in broad daylight. Donning his full regalia, he was magnificent! We studied him while he hunted for many minutes, and when we came back 45 minutes later, he was still out in the open looking for some food, wholly undeterred by our presence. Awesome find and life bird 220!

I picked up a lone Piping Plover (lifer 221) during my visit to Back Bay the next day, but considering much of that area is closed for the offseason, I left feeling a little deflated. I'd read so many good things about the quantity and diversity of birds at Back Bay that I probably had unrealistic expectations. But... as a direct result of feeling let down, I exited Back Bay at an unusually slow pace, just hoping to pick up a Seaside Sparrow or something. Virtually no one was out that day, so I could drive as leisurely as I wanted, stopping the car in the middle of the road if something required closer viewing. And then it happened. With just a few hundred yards left before entering the neighborhoods outside of Back Bay park, I spotted an American Bittern tucked into the reeds near a small stream. Lifer 222! If I'd seen a bunch of other birds before leaving, I would've left the park in higher spirits and at a faster speed. I almost certainly would've missed that amazing little prehistoric throwback.

But my greatest find of all happened just a few miles from the Bittern. After leaving Back Bay, I decided to explore some back roads and farms, hoping beyond hope to find some rarities brave enough to weather the brewing storms. Out of nowhere, I saw a flock of bright-white, long-beaked birds. I made a quick u-turn and pulled up along side these bizarre little creatures. You probably already know what they were, but I sure didn't. Studying the field guides enough will leave traces of knowledge--names, habitats, migration probability--but as a beginning birder, I often just stare wide-mouthed at new discoveries. (By the way, I don't think that's a bad thing, and I don't ever want to lose that feeling of being nearly clueless about a bird, just lost in how odd/beautiful/stupefying/frightening the thing is.) Of course, it turns out the birds were White Ibis, a rarity for the area (at least this time of the year) and lifer number 223 for me. If the Bittern is straight out of prehistory, the White Ibis is straight out of Edward Gorey's sketchbook. This is one far out bird!

Other wildlife were actually pretty scarce, but Rexanne and I did manage to find a Harbor Seal at Pleasure House Point (not that he was hard to spot, what with his impressive girth and dopey face!). Can I has hug?

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